Career Pathmaker: Oran Nehls


DHS Principal awarded by Manufacturing Alliance

By Charles Collier, The Denmark News

When students take an exam, they do so after varying levels of study and instruction knowing they will either pass or fail. While the binary assessment of students’ knowledge surely has its benefits, Denmark High School principal Oran Nehls takes issue with the word, “failure.”

Channeling inventor Thomas Edison’s assertion that he simply discovered 10,000 ways which would not produce a working lightbulb Nehls said, “Students never fail, they’re just learning how not to solve a problem.”

Collaborative problem solving is at the heart of what Nehls directs his teachers to infuse into their instruction, saying he aims to show students the relevancy which the curriculum has in real-world applications.

“School shouldn’t be a prison term where you have to sit for four years until you graduate. There should be some benefit and value to what students are doing in life,” said Nehls, “For the brain to retain something, there needs to be a connecting point. We’re trying to connect what we’re teaching to the way students are already thinking.”

The Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance (NEWMA) had in years prior communicated to the principal pronounced skills shortages, wondering how to expose students to the possibilities within their field. In 2014, Nehls posed a challenge for the manufacturers to, “put some skin in the game” and find a way to partner with students inside the classroom.

“He wanted to help students have a better understanding of careers in manufacturing. He wanted to partner with a business—either in Denmark or elsewhere—to show his students real-world applications of what they were learning,” NEWMA director Ann Franz said.

The following schoolyear, Andy Bushmaker of KI in Green Bay gave Kory Fredrickson’s students a problem to solve.

At the time, casters on some models the furniture manufacturers’ blade-based chairs were hammered on by hand. This caused some malfunctions via hairline fractures in the base as well as unnecessary worker fatigue. Within a few months, Fredrickson’s tech ed students devised a machine for the same task, cutting $10,000 from KI’s production budget.

Bay Port, Bonduel and Preble high schools have followed Denmark’s lead, forging partnerships with Sofidel, KI and Nature’s Way, respectively.

“Shame on us for doubting it,” Franz said looking back at initial apprehension to the partnership.

These partnerships invigorated NEWMA’s K12 taskforce which aims to find productive ways to connect students to the concept of manufacturing and relaying the importance of seemingly dry subjects. Though taking pride in other districts mirroring Denmark’s approach, Nehls sees it as a call to continue innovation.

“It means we have to stay one step ahead and keep students one leg up on other schools,” Nehls said.

Last year Denmark students completed a second project for KI and gained facetime with some of the manufacturers’ engineers to gain employability skills. One student from the program has attained full-time employment with KI while pursuing a degree at NWTC.

A third project is already slated for the upcoming schoolyear.

Since NEWMA’s founding in 2006 enrollment in manufacturing degrees between Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Fox Valley Technical College have risen by 320 students. A similar effect is seen in the field of welding, where in 2005 there were 193 students on track for a welding degree while in 2015 that number had risen to 835. NEWMA has also sponsored $190,000 in college scholarships in nine years.

Oran Nehls is the principal of Denmark High School. (News photo)

Nehls has not missed one of the K12 taskforce’s meetings and for his dedication is being honored with NEWMA’s Career Pathmaker—Administrator award at the group’s annual award ceremony later this fall.

“Our outreach is only possible through an administrator that sees many facets of learning for students and is willing to go above and beyond their duties,” Franz said.

Nehls, though appreciative of the nomination and receptive of the award, is more focused on providing Denmark students with as many opportunities as possible.

“Let’s get to the next level and make our school that think tank for companies to come to. We have a task force of 450 brains here. I can’t say we’ll solve it, but give us that chance and give our students that chance,” Nehls said.

Nehls will fittingly receive the Career Pathmaker award at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay on October 25 with a cocktail hour beginning at 4:30 p.m. A silent auction will help raise funds for future scholarships before the dinner and awards program from 6-8:30 p.m. For further information on the awards ceremony, visit